In the Championship it is looking much more settled with Hawke's Bay and Otago confirmed as home semifinalists and Southland, Northland and Taranaki all vying for the final two spots.
Relegation prospects are no clearer in the Premiership where even fourth-placed Bay of Plenty can't be over-confident. They did beat Waikato to give themselves a boost but North Harbour are only one point behind them and Canterbury and Wellington are two points further back.
The final game of the regular season, when Canterbury host Auckland, will decide who will be relegated. Canterbury will at least know what is required of them as on Saturday Bay of Plenty host North Harbour while Wellington will play Manawatu.
ROUND NINE WRAP:
Southland v Otago
History, and smaller population, has always meant Southland tends to be on the receiving end of losses in games against their nearest neighbour but occasionally there are performances to savour and Friday night in Invercargill was one of them. Signs have been seen of an overdue recovery for Southland this year but this result was the clearest evidence yet. Skipper, and flanker, Tony Lamborn set a great example for Southland. He scored the first try and ensured pressure was maintained on Otago until the end. Otago did score two fine tries, wing Freedom Vahaakolo showing his class on a 35m run while second five-eighths Sio Tomkinson's effort was off a set-piece play. But a missed pass by first five-eighths Josh Ioane was picked up by flanker Matt James who had a 50m run to start the second half with a try. Ioane's miss of a handy penalty chance, with 20 minutes lef, let Southland off the hook and they celebrated with tries to wing Tevita Latu from a scrum out from the line and then a try for replacement hooker Talemaitoga Tuapati from a turnover in front of Otago's posts.
Southland 32 (Tony Lamborn, Matt James, Tevita Latu, Talemaitoga Tuapati tries; Scot Eade con, 2 pen; Greg Dyer 2 con) Otago 15 (Freedom Vahaakolo, Sio Tomkinson tries; Josh Ioane con, pen). HT: 10-15
Auckland v Northland
Inconsistency has been Auckland's greatest rival over the past decade, and while there has been success in recent seasons, there have also been moments when they have been in danger of letting things slip. Fortunately, wing Salesi Rayasi felt otherwise and sealed a late win over Northland at Eden Park. The Taniwha side did pour on the pressure and led 10-3 until Rayasi's intercept and 50m run for Auckland's first try. Northland reclaimed the lead with a try to halfback Sam Nock after a kick ahead by fullback Mathew Wright which was taken by centre Rene Ranger who passed out to Nock to score. But Rayasi was in it again when returning a pass from prop Jarred Adams for the big prop to give Auckland a lead only for hooker Jorden Olsen to score with seven minutes left. However, Rayasi had the final say, although an injury time lineout penalty conceded by Northland was enough to let Auckland off the hook.
Auckland 24 (Salesi Rayasi 2, Jarred Adams tries; Harry Plummer 3 con; Zarn Sullivan pen) Northland 20 (Jone Macilai, Sam Nock, Jorden Olsen tries; Wiseguy Faiane con; Johnny Cooper pen). HT: 0-8
North Harbour v Counties Manukau
North Harbour's revived season continued in the wet at Albany in a game it dominated almost from the outset after wing Jared Page hauled in a huge pass from halfback Bryn Hall to score after 10 minutes. Lineout mauls don't come much better than the 20-metre effort that saw hooker Luteru Tolai score. Counties Manukau's only try, to wing Kirisi Kuridrani was a carbon copy of Page's earlier effort. However, it was quickly responded to as prop Teague McElroy put his power to use to extend the lead which was made even more emphatic when another long Hall pass, this time to the left, saw wing Tomas Aoake over in the corner.
North Harbour 32 (Jared Page, Luteru Tolai, Teague McElroy, Tomas Aoake tries; Bryn Gatland 3 con, 2 pen) Counties Manukau 5 (Kirisi Kuridrani try). HT: 10-0
Tasman v Canterbury
Backs to the relegation wall Canterbury came out just as would be expected. They were firing on all cylinders and experience showed with lock Luke Romano turning back the years to produce a compelling example for some of his side who are in the earliest years of their first-class careers. His lineout work was a masterclass of competitiveness, but not the only area that he contributed. His tackling and running with the ball was also impressive. To keep Tasman scoreless was testimony to the level of intent in the Canterbury approach. That was backed by fullback Josh McKay who made Tasman pay for a failed touch finder with a superb run that opened up the home defence with ease. It was a good night for Canterbury's wings with brothers Ngatungane and Isaiah Punivai scoring along with Chay Fihaki who pulled off a key intercept at the start of the second half to leave Tasman facing a steep uphill run which they were unable to complete.
Tasman 0 Canterbury 29 (Ngatungane Punivai, Josh McKay, Chay Fihaki, Isaiah Punivai tries; Brett Cameron 3 con, pen). HT: 0-17
Hawke's Bay v Wellington
Ranfurly Shield history says it is usually the challenger who throws everything into the first quarter of challenges, but in Napier on Sunday it was Hawke's Bay, the defender, who threw off Wellington hopes by scoring three tries in the first quarter: the first after securing a mid-field bomb, a kick ahead by halfback Folau Fakatava and a successful chase by No8 Devan Flanders; the second from a lineout drive to flanker Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, and the third to centre Stacey Ili. But to cap that, the cream of the crop went to second-five Neria Fomai after fullback Kurt Baker broke from his 22m to link with the backline and when replacement five-eighth Lincoln McClutchie kicked to the in-goal area, it was Fomai who had the speed to score. Wellington scored two tries, including a superb run by lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi, in six minutes to pull back to 34-18 behind with 15 minutes left, but Hawke's Bay held firm to claim the Shield for summer.
Hawke's Bay 34 (Devan Flanders, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Stacey Ili, Neria Fomai tries; Caleb Makene 3 con, 2 pen; Lincoln McClutchie con) Wellington 18 (Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Kaliopasi Uluilakepa tries; Jackson Garden-Bachop con, 2 pen). HT: 27-6
Waikato v Bay of Plenty
It's an old saying, that a certain team 'had come to play', but that's what Bay of Plenty showed Waikato five minutes into their game when a length of the field try finished off by second-five Dan Hollishead set the scene for a lively encounter in Hamilton. That was followed a few minutes later by a Joe Webber charge down which saw the wing reclaim the ball to score. Webber scored a second and then it was Waikato's turn to respond with centre Quinn Tupaea busting open the Bay defence to be followed soon after by prop Ollie Norris driving over from a ruck close to the line. Down 18-19 at the turn, Waikato struck back when Samisoni Taukei'aho took an in-pass four minutes into the second half to score. Soon after Tupaea scored his second following a break by wing Liam Coombes-Fabling but Bay of Plenty had Mathew Skipwith-Garland create a break in midfield and No8 Sam Dickson drew them within four with his try. Nearly three minutes into injury time flanker Joe Johnston delivered the coup de grace with a try under the posts.
Waikato 30 (Quinn Tupaea 2, Ollie Norris, Samisoni Taukei'aho tries; Beaudein Waaka 2 con, 2 pen) Bay of Plenty 33 (Dan Hollinshead, Joe Webber 2, Sam Dickson, Joe Johnston tries; Kaleb Trask 4 con). HT: 18-19
Manawatu v Taranaki
Down 6-12 at halftime at Feilding, Taranaki scored two tries in five minutes early in the second half to gain some vital momentum and while Manawatu closed within one point, a stronger final quarter saw Taranaki extend their run of wins over the home side to six. Manawatu halfback Bryn Wilson and lock Liam Mitchell scored first half tries while wing Nigel Ah Wong scored in the second. But Taranaki's use of their lineout maul saw prop Brad Slater cross twice for tries from mauls then as they started to run with confidence their wings Jacob Taumaitayuki-Kneepkens and Lewis Ormond each scored to put the issue beyond doubt. Manawatu finished strongly but errors under pressure denied them the chance to pull off a grandstand finish.
Manawatu 19 (Bryn Wilson, Liam Mitchell, Nigel Ah Wong tries; Ben Wyness con; Stewart Cruden con) Taranaki 35 (Brad Slater 2, Jacob Raumaitayuki-Kneepkens, Lewis Ormond tries; Jayson Potroz 3 con, 3 pen). HT: 12-6